I’m really playing catch-up here–no new news. Months ago now federal legislation was introduced to create what amounts to a national putative father’s registry.
I’ve written about the idea of putative father registries before and we’ve discussed it some. It all ties in with the discussion of the parental rights of unmarried men, which is partly what is at issue in the ICWA case.
I’ll start with a bit of background. Suppose an unmarried woman is going to give birth and wants to place the child for adoption. She can go ahead and make arrangements and sign papers. But what about the rights of the man who must have been involved in the creation of the child? The adoption cannot be completed unless/until either his rights are terminated or we know he has no rights to begin with.
The last point may seem surprising (unless you’ve been reading here regularly) but it could well be that the unmarried man who is the genetic father has no legal parental rights at all and hence, doesn’t even have to be told about the adoption. In general, unmarried men do not automatically acquire legal parental rights in their offspring. (There was extensive discussion here about a Utah case (Achane) where a married man was treated as though he were not married. You might want to look over that as it might give you a sense of the legal position of unmarried genetic fathers.)
So just to move along, the question is what exactly does an unmarried man have to do in order to acquire legal status vis-à-vis his genetic offspring? There’s no simple answer–it varies state to state. But in a number of states (34) he has to place his name in a putative father’s registry. The idea here is that when he has sex with a woman, he knows conception may occur. If he has some interest in that conception he has some options. He could, for example, marry the woman. He could live with her. He could otherwise support her. Or he could skip those things and instead send a postcard to the correct state office and say when he had sex with her and take a guess at a possible due date for a child.
If a woman gives birth and wants to place the child for adoption, the court requires a search of the registry. If his name is there, then a man gets notice of the adoption and presumably some right to object to the adoption.
The idea of a federal registry is that having individual states maintain their own registries just invites chaos. Men may send notice to the wrong state (because they don’t know where the woman gives birth.) And 16 states don’t have registries anyway. So one national one–coordinated–would be simpler.
I would guess that anyone who favors state registries would favor a national one, but there are plenty of people who see the whole idea of registries as a terrible one. And you can tell from the title of the legislation that it’s all quite political. The bill is called the “Protecting Responsible Fatherhood and Promoting Adoption Act of 2012.” And indeed, the registry is called a “National Responsible Father Registry.” Who, after all, could object to responsible fatherhood? Are there any supporters of irresponsible fatherhood?
The question, I think, is whether the registry idea promotes adoption at the expense of genetic fathers. And perhaps you can now see how this ties into what we’ve been talking about in the ICWA case.
I think the question at the heart of things is this: How much, if anything, should an unmarried genetic father be required to do before he can claim legal status as a parent? It’s agreed, I think, that if he has legal status as a parent then the adoption cannot proceed without him. It is also agreed that if he has no legal status vis-à-vis the child, then the adoption can proceed without him. So again, what does he need to do to gain status?
The registry idea sets a minimum: He must at least step forward and identify himself. He knows he had sex. He knows conception might have occurred (or he knows that it did). He must then take some action to show he’s interested and wants to be included. Signing up for the registry is the bare minimum.
There’s one obvious problem here: How on earth would a man know to sign up? I don’t mean to minimize this problem. You’ll notice in the bill there is some language about a public education campaign, but you do have to wonder how real that would be. Still, I’d like to put this problem to one side for the moment. Let’s assume you really did do the public education.
Are these registries a bad idea? They do make adoptions easier, because they streamline the process for notifying men who might claim parental rights. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is registering really asking too much of men?
Maybe the whole problem really is the education thing–that too many men don’t know about the registries. If that’s so then it’s a problem and it’s a problem I think we could address. But I have to say, if a man is planning to actually raise a child–to be a hands-on parent–then I think asking for a few simple pre-birth actions (by which I mean registering) doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable.
I know many people think the registries are terribly unfair to unmarried men, but apart from the education piece, I’m having trouble seeing it. Do tell?